Whilst slavery can be traced back to some of the world’s oldest societies and was officially abolished in the UK in 1833, its modern form is still widely practised. A specialist in civil liberties, Samantha Knights QC, will be giving a talk as part of the Exile – A Mind in Winter exhibition at Bridport Arts Centre in December. She talked to Fergus Byrne.
What is modern slavery?
Modern slavery is an umbrella term encompassing slavery, servitude, forced or compulsory labour and human trafficking. Victims of modern slavery are unable to leave their situation of exploitation, controlled by threats, punishment, violence, coercion and deception. Slavery violates human rights, denying people of their right to life, freedom and security.
Examples of some of my clients’ cases include a Vietnamese boy trafficked to the UK by a Vietnamese gang and forced to work without any pay in a cannabis house; a British girl in care from an early age who became trapped into a cycle of sex and drug trafficking in Wales and England; a Lithuanian woman trafficked to the UK by a violent partner and forced into prostitution; an Indonesian woman brought to the UK as a domestic servant by wealthy Middle Eastern family and exploited, subjected to abuse and underpaid; and a Polish man based in the UK who lost his job and who became trapped in working for a small laundry business in the UK earning £10 a day for long hours of work.
How prevalent is it?
The UK is both a country of destination, with thousands of victims arriving from other countries only to be exploited by criminals; and a source country with increasing numbers of British victims identified. Slavery takes many different forms and affects adults and children, males and females.
Those who are enslaved are exploited for the financial gain of their captors. The vulnerable are made to work in cruel conditions for long hours without pay. Examples include women and girls forced into prostitution for profit, young boys made to commit criminal acts against their will and men kept in slave-like conditions in factories.
Last year 10,627 potential victims of modern slavery were referred to the National Referral Mechanism; a 52% increase from 2018. The most common type of exploitation for both adults and minors was labour exploitation. Potential victims from the UK, Albania and Vietnam were the three most common nationalities to be referred in the NRM.
Human traffickers in the UK will coerce and control their victims, keeping them in slavery for weeks, months or years at a time. Individuals are often deceived into working in slave-like conditions, and then threatened in order to keep them there. Victims are moved from abuser to abuser and they are usually too afraid of their captors to risk escape, making slavery a hidden, complex crime.
For those victims who do escape or are rescued the UK has an established system of support, namely, the National Referral Mechanism (NRM). This was introduced in 2009. The NRM provides accommodation and other vital services for victims for a minimum of 45 days. The NRM exists outside statute, and many organisations also support victims of modern slavery before, during and after exiting the NRM.
Although modern slavery can involve the movement of people across an international border, it is also possible to be a victim within one’s own country.
How is the South West affected?
There is no part of the UK which is unaffected by slavery and this includes all parts of the South West. The Bristol based NGO ‘Unseen’ was founded in 2007 with its aim to tackle slavery in the area. ‘Unseen’ in turn set up the Anti-Slavery Partnership with Avon and Somerset Police and Bristol City Council.
The organisation ‘Safer Devon’ states:
“Modern slavery and human trafficking is happening in Devon. Hotspots include the tourism and hospitality industries, nail bars and car washes. Hotels and holiday lets may be used to house people whilst they are being exploited. As a hidden crime, our knowledge of modern slavery happening locally is still developing. Everyone can do their bit to be aware of the signs and report concerns.”
What do you do?
I am a barrister at Matrix and specialise in public law and civil liberties. I have worked for many years on refugee and immigration cases and in the past four years have been working increasingly on modern slavery and trafficking cases. The cases that come to me reflect all the various types of slavery present in the UK today including trafficking for sexual exploitation, domestic servitude, and labour exploitation. My clients are foreign nationals, EU citizens and British. I have represented clients who are being unlawfully detained in immigration detention centres; clients who have been wrongfully convicted of drug offences whereas they should have been recognised as a victim of trafficking and protected; clients who have been refused the status of victim of trafficking by the Home Office and thus not considered entitled to support and assistance; clients who have not been provided with support and assistance to which they are entitled as victims of trafficking by law. The cases I am involved in tend to be complex and often involve multiple government departments, local authorities, and other organisations. Most of my clients are deeply traumatised and some of them have suffered abuse from childhood in the UK. I am instructed by firms of solicitors in these cases who are specialist in this area and who themselves are working in very difficult circumstances with limited legal aid resources available.
What can people do?
Be aware and informed about the issue. Consider where you source your food, clothes and consumables from. There are numerous websites with helpful information including Anti-Slavery, Unseen, Kalayaan, Stop the Traffik, the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner. If you are concerned about someone, contact the Modern Slavery Helpline.